Curfew: Taking A Dance Step Into Resistance

Set in a world in which we have become a bit like zombies, not knowing how to respond to the news we hear or read about everyday. Bombarded with fake and true information, many are no longer sure of how to act in the face of others’ suffering or indeed towards the awareness that we all now live under subtle surveillance and manipulation. Instead we choose to be deaf and blind by turning to other stories that can assuage our conscience and help us deny responsibility.

It is this indifference on the global scale that ‘Curfew’ confronts the audience with. An original dance performance, it draws upon a mix of contemporary-modern moves and the traditional Palestinian Dabke. Creatively directed by Sharaf Darzaid, who is a member of the El-Funoun Palestinian Dance Troupe, it refers one to the local struggle against oppression and how dance has become a form of resistance and an empowering means of self-expression.

Nine dancers in total, who all contributed with their personal stories and ideas to the final routine, four of them came all the way from Ramallah in the West Bank to represent El-Funoun: Mohammed Altayeh, Khaled Abueram, Sharaf Darzaid and Lure Sadeq. The other five dancers, belonging to the London-based Hawiyya Dance Company, were: Jamila Boughelaf, Sylvia Ferreira, Sali Kharobi, Miriam Ozanne and Serena Spadoni.

Structured by scenes that are set in Palestine and in the universal realm, we see how brief moments of happiness and normality are interrupted or sabotaged by the loud voiceover of political news that leaves the dancers deflated, at a loss and feeling helpless. In other acts the performers also appear to be at the mercy of work production lines and hypnotised by the sound of a ringing alarm clock which forces them back into a state of submission, meekness and withdrawal.

    

Significant props include mobile phones that indicate both the lack of real human interaction in today’s busy world – as they distract, separate and isolate – and the fact that these little devices are an important tool to finding non-biased truth through social media channels. Whilst black masks come to convey that there are yet dark forces lurking in the shadows of our existence, keeping a computer-generated eye on our moves as well as secretly profiling each and every single one of us.

Amidst the confusion, the evident psychological abuse of minds and exerted physical control over bodies, the routine dramatically develops into the final scenes when the dancers consciously wake up to their predicament. It all then ends in spectacular fashion that engages directly with the audience by giving two dares that can be accepted or rejected at will.

Insight: Creative Director Sharaf Darzaid & Executive Producer Jamila Boughelaf

Curfew came about when three members of Hawiyya were on a visit to Palestine last year and experienced first hand the demoralising ways of the occupying force – like, for example, the unnecessary interrogations at border check points. So when they met Darzaid there, who was coordinating the annual Palestine International Festival for Dance and Music, they decided on a collaborative project to bring the story back to a London audience.

Boughelaf, executive producer for Curfew, explained: “When I came back from Palestine I found many people who wanted to hear my stories. But I also found many others who refused to acknowledge the facts and others asking me why I cared so much as there is injustice everywhere and you can’t do anything to change it. My response is why don’t you care?

“This is really what drove me to make this project happen and after discussing with Sharaf, as well as all the dancers from Hawiyya, we realised we were all asking ourselves the same question: are we doing enough? We may not be able to change the world’s politics, but if we manage to change even one person’s understanding of reality I feel that we have done something!”

Wanting to learn more from Darzaid, who has been an active member of El-Funoun for over seventeen years as a dancer, trainer and choreographer, I asked him firstly to expand on the choice of title ‘Curfew’ and tell me about the role of Dabke in the production.

Darzaid: “It is called Curfew for two reasons. Physically especially in Palestine, we have a certain time of curfew, when no one can move out from the houses in the West Bank. Even if we secretly want to go to the dance studio, we have to close the door after we enter, put down the blinds and keep the lights down, so that they can’t see that we are in and the music volume is low.

“We spent months under curfew and couldn’t move… the Israelis would give us a couple of hours a week to go out and bring food and go back home; and, even before or after this curfew, we are still not freely able to move from one city to another, because of the checkpoints between the cities.

“For example, I can’t go to my capital Jerusalem, I need permission to go there. Or Gaza. If I want to travel to places like here in the UK, I need to bring a lot of papers in order to prove that I am a ‘good human’, and therefore travelling between the cities and between countries, this is the physical meaning of curfew.

“Sometimes you want to take a position to resist the oppression but many times, you can’t even do this because you are forbidden. So even in your thoughts you are not free and there is a curfew. To quote Desmond Tutu, ‘if you are neutral in a situation of oppression, you’ve chosen the side of the oppressor’; and, Paulo Freire said: ‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral…’.

“We are coming from a place where we are under occupation and this is one of the stories about what we do. We don’t’ give answers, we give a question. What do you do? Do you take action or do you maintain? Even being silent is a political position. Saying no I don’t’ care what happens, I just want to wake up and work and have money and by the end of the day I have my drink and eat and sleep, you can take this position. I say nothing. I say in this case you are maintaining.”

“(In terms of the dance) I am inspired by folklore and trying to speak in this choreography by using Dabke as an identity and not as a movement. We are doing a contemporary production and one of the pieces is about the Palestinian wedding where there is really Dabke. But the rest draws upon the energy, power and the meaning of Dabke as resistance. You can feel it throughout the production.”

I left in awe of the dancers’ energy, fluidity and expert movements led by the highly skilled choreography. I also went away with great respect for Dabke not just as a dance; but, also, as a source of cultural endurance that is being passed down Palestinian generations and being widely shared by others who wish to stand in solidarity. The big question is who will be joining in and taking their first dance step into resistance for a free Palestine.

For more on Hawiyya: https://www.facebook.com/HawiyyaDabke/

For more on El Funoun: http://www.el-funoun.org/

Photos credit: Jose Farinha: https://www.josefarinha.com/

Note: This article was first published circa March 2018

Retracing A Disappearing Landscape: Exhibition Overview + Parallel Programme

Curated by Najlaa El-Ageli, the ‘Retracing A Disappearing Landscape’ is an interdisciplinary exhibition that is currently on show at the P21 Gallery in London until 12 May. Presenting visual artworks, commissioned installations, films and recent as well as archival photography, it creatively explores people’s direct experience of and fascination with memory and personal history, and approaching the collective narratives that arise in connection to modern day Libya.

The first of its kind internationally, it is also hosting a parallel programme of talks that adds more depth and insight into the themes that come up in the viewing of the artworks and interaction with the installations. Involving over 25 contemporary artists and professionals, both Libyan and non-Libyan, their backgrounds draw upon diverse disciplines that include: poetry, literature, history, research, photojournalism and documentary filmmaking.

Participating artists and professionals are: Najat Abeed, Mohamed Abumeis, Huda Abuzeid, Mohamed Al Kharrubi, Takwa Barnosa, Mohamed Ben Khalifa, Najwa Benshatwan, Alla Budabbus, Malak Elghwel, Elham Ferjani, Yousef Fetis, Hadia Gana, Ghazi Gheblawi, Reem Gibriel, Jihan Kikhia, Marcella Mameli-Badi, Guy Martin, Arwa Massaoudi, Khaled Mattawa, Tawfik Naas, Laila Sharif, Najla Shawket Fitouri, Barbara Spadaro and Adam Styp-Rekowski.

Beginning with the archetypical memories associated with the traditional Libyan family album, the visual elements show images and scenes from private archives that go as far back as the early 1900s. These photos hint at the social fabric of many decades past that has now undergone much felt and visible change. Whilst the second segment features a number of installations that are meant to be temporary repositories and eye-witnesses to the country’s history in different interpretive ways.

The capital city of Tripoli becomes a recurring monumental backdrop, wherein the city’s past, its signposts and architecture are intermingled with the artists’ stories and their attempt to capture and retrace the city’s disappearing and ever-changing landscape. The Ghazala installation, for example, addresses the unusual fate of the historic figurine fountain that was built by the Italian sculptor Vanetti in the 1930s and was an iconic landmark in central Tripoli for decades, before it recently vanished.

The raw history of the entirety of Libya also comes into view with reflections on its many uncomfortable episodes, including the colonial chapter, the current migrant crisis, the shifting urban landscape, the suffering under dictatorship for 42 years and the turbulent post-revolutionary period.

Looking at the known and unknown memories of Libya through the work of its citizens, both at home and abroad, the country is revealed to be a powerful force in their lives, as it is always carried in their hearts, thoughts and collective psyche and never far from their mind.

By exhibiting these artworks and hosting the parallel programme that delves deep into the Libyan artistic, cultural and intellectual terrain, it is encouraging robust discussion and reflection amongst guests and the British public.

The ‘Retracing A Disappering Landscape’ Parallel Programme

The events scheduled are below and all talks will be held at the P21 Gallery.

In Conversation: Libyan Writer Najwa Benshatwan

Date: Saturday 10 March (14:30-16:00)

Ghazi Gheblawi hosts a conversation with author Najwa Benshatwan to discuss the themes running through her highly acclaimed novel ‘The Slave Pens’. Shortlisted for the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), the book sheds light on an ugly period of Libya’s history – when slave trade markets flourished during the Ottoman era, way before the Italian colonisation and prior to Libya’s declared independence in 1951.

In ‘The Slave Pens’ Benshatwan brings forth the narrative of the slaves in a sensitive romantic tale that touches upon the era and taboo subjects that have not been exposed before within Libyan culture. She bravely tackles the cruel trade of human beings, coming at a time when Libya has turned into a smuggler’s paradise again with African migrants being unfairly bartered.

Benshatwan is a Libyan academic, novelist and playwright, with a doctorate from La Sapienz University in Rome. The recipient of many literary prizes, she has authored three collections of short stories and three novels, including The Slave Pens. Most recently, her short story Return Ticket was featured in Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations published by Comma Press. She is currently at St Aidan’s College, University of Durham where she has taken up the Banipal Visiting Writer Fellowship for the duration of three months.

Gheblawi is a Libyan physician, writer, activist and blogger based in the UK. He runs and hosts the Imtidad cultural blog and podcast that focuses on literature and arts in Britain and the Arab world. He was one of the founders and cultural editor of the newspaper Libya Alyoum (2004-2009) and involved in many start-up online media and cultural projects. He is also a council member of the Society for Libyan Studies in Britain and a trustee of the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature. He is the senior editor at Darf Publishers, an independent publishing house based in London.

Khaled Mattawa: Poems Moving Pictures<>Pictures Moving Poems

Date: Saturday 31 March (14:30-16:00)

Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa presents a special talk in tandem with the overall context of the interdisciplinary show: to explore people’s direct experience of and fascination with personal memory as well as the collective narratives that arise in connection to modern day Libya.

Khaled Mattawa (born 1964 in Benghazi) is a renowned Libyan poet, highly acclaimed Arab-American writer and a leading literary translator. He is the author of four collections of poetry (Tocqueville, Amorisco, Zodiac of Echoes and Ismailia Eclipse) and two volumes of literary criticism (How Long Have You Been with Us: Essays on Poetry and Mahmoud Darwish: The Poet’s Art and His Nation).

Mattawa is also a co-editor of two Arab American literature anthologies and the translator of eleven volumes of modern Arabic poetry. His poems, essays and translations have appeared in major American literary reviews and anthologies.

Once commenting on how his poetry has been influenced by his emigration from Libya in 1979 to the United States, Mattawa said: “I think memory was very important to my work as a structure, that the tone of remembrance, or the position of remembering, is very important, was a way of speaking when I was in between deciding to stay and not stay, and I had decided to stay.”

The recipient of many literary awards, these include a Guggenheim fellowship, a USA Artists Award and a MacArthur fellowship. His work has also won the San Francisco Poetry Center Prize, the PEN American Center Poetry Translation Prize (twice), three Pushcart Prizes, final for the Pegasus Prize and a notable book recognition from the Academy of American Poets.

Mattawa is currently a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, the premier poetry society in the United States and associate professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also a contributing editor for Banipal, the leading independent magazine of contemporary Arab literature translated into English.

For more: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/khaled-mattawa

Jihan Kikhia: Searching for Kikhia

Date: Thursday 19 April (18:30-20:00)

Jihan Kikhia is the writer, director and producer of the documentary film ‘Searching for Kikhia’, which is still a work in progress. Here she shares the personal journey in creating the film that is based on the true story of her family’s struggle against political and personal pressures in the search for justice, in relation to the disappearance of her late father Mansur Rashid Kikhia.

During the nineteen-year search for the missing Mansur, Baha Omary, Jihan’s Syrian-American mother, encountered some of the most powerful and dangerous people in the world (including Qaddafi himself), whilst navigating the political agendas and conflict of interests of five countries: the United States, Syria, Libya, France, and Egypt. Forced to reckon with international secret services, tortuous mystery and a clash of cultures, she still had to nurture and protect her children.

Jihan Kikhia: “Death is expected. It is closure. It is natural. Disappearance is surreal. I want to share with the audience questions such as: What is it about disappearance that makes us so confused? So disturbed? So upset? So detached yet so hooked? At times, moving on feels like you’re cheating, or that you have also betrayed justice. You somehow feel guilty that you have been unable to obtain resolution or change the situation. There is a powerlessness that is deeply uncomfortable”.

Kikhia has a Bachelor’s degree in International and Comparative Politics from the American University of Paris and a Master’s from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where her focus was on art education, body ornamentation and healing arts.

In 2015, her body painting project and exhibition ‘Painted Stories, Spirited Bodies’ was recognized as excellent student work in NYU’s Confluence online magazine. In 2012, her article ‘Libya, My father, and I’ was published in Kalimat Magazine: Arab Thought and Culture. She is very committed to discovering and nurturing the ways in which humanitarian aid and the healing arts merge, and how the creative process can be a vehicle for freedom and empowerment.

For more: https://www.mansurkikhia.org/

Guy Martin: The Missing

Date: Tuesday 24 April (18:30-20:00)

Photojournalist Guy Martin recalls his experience of covering political and historical events in Libya. He began to document the revolutions sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa circa January 2011and brought back images from Egypt, before focusing on the civil war in Libya from the east to the besieged western city of Misrata circa April 2011.

In this talk, he will discuss the photographs of the Libyan men that had adorned the walls of the courthouse in Benghazi during the spring and summer of 2011; because over the course of the Libyan revolution, the locals were found to be posting pictures of missing sons, fathers, uncles, cousins, brothers and friends in the hope that someone might recognise a face.

“The faces read like a ghoulish storybook of Libya’s recent history; a man who had not returned from a secret and brutal war with Chad in the 1970s; a man publicly executed in Benghazi in the 1980s; faces of men who disappeared after being arrested by Gaddafi’s secret police during his four decades of brutal rule.” Guy Martin

Martin’s work in Egypt and Libya formed the basis for joint exhibitions at the Spanish Cultural Centre in New York, HOST Gallery in London, the Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff and the SIDE Gallery in Newcastle. He also had his first solo show ‘Shifting Sands’ at the Poly Gallery in Falmouth.

His professional photographs have appeared in the Guardian, Observer, Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, Der Spiegel, D Magazine, FADER Magazine, Monocle Magazine, Huck Magazine, The British Journal of Photography, ARTWORLD, The New Statesman, The Wall Street Journal and Time. He is also member of the esteemed photographic agency Panos Pictures.

Originally from Cornwall, Martin studied Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Newport and graduated with distinction. One of his first projects -Trading over the Borderline – was a documentation of the border region between Turkey and Northern Iraq and its trade routes that won him the Guardian and Observer Hodge Award for young photographers.

In 2011 Martin became an associate lecturer in Press and Editorial Photography at the University of Falmouth, United Kingdom. He now divides his time between in Istanbul and London.

For more: http://guy-martin.co.uk/

Adam Styp-Rekowski: Walks In Tripoli

Date: Saturday 28 April (14:30-16:00)

Adam Styp-Rekowski is from a legal background and has for many years worked for the United Nations and NGO’s in the Middle East and North Africa region. Originally from Poland, he is currently in Tunisia as a country director of the NGO Democracy Reporting International that looks at constitutional reforms. Prior to that, between 2012 and 2015, he worked as a constitutional dialogue project manager at the United Nations Development Programme in Libya.

Outside of these roles, Styp-Rekowski is also an expert photographer, highly respected and admired. His images are of the cities he has visited and worked in, often capturing the locals he comes across and day-to-day street scenes. Artistic both in colour and often in black and white, his ‘Walks’ portfolio covers the places and trips that have seen him enter and pass different continents.

“Camera helps to capture walks in space but also in time. I walk in places and time and share photographs of my walks…” Adam Styp-Rekowski

Styp-Rekowski’s photography has been exhibited in Jordan, Iraq, Libya, United Kingdom, Poland and Tunisia. He will be presenting images from his ‘Walks In Tripoli’ album and discuss the stories behind them.

For more: https://www.facebook.com/WalksInTripoli/

Farrah Fray: Weaving the Fabric of Our Fate

Date: Saturday 5 May (14:30-16:00)

Young Libyan writer Farrah Fray will speak about poetry, memory and contested personal history, providing a unique expository take on the idea of documenting and mapping personal and collective journeys. Informed by her background in translation and linguistics, Fray invites the audience to view Libya as a multi-modal piece of literature which, similar to the weaving of a cloth, carries routes positioned in different angles to each other and patterns repeated over the course of time, using all pieces of thread to reach a shared destination.

A published poet (The Scent of My Skin: From Libya, London and Every World I Live In), Fray’s work navigates and explores culture, feminism, displacement and identity. She is influenced by both London and Libya as well as other travels and the people she meets. Through her poems and memoirs, she hopes to expand the understanding and representation of Middle Eastern women today.

Most recently, she is working on a collaborative series with different artists for Khabar Keslan, confronting Libya’s fragmented history and identity. Khabar Keslan is an online review featuring art and critique from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.

For more: https://www.farrahfray.com

Barbara Spadaro: Una Casa Normale

Date: Thursday 10 May (18:30-20:00)

Italian academic-historian Barbara Spadaro will deliver a talk that moves between Ottoman mansions, terrace houses and modernist flats of Tripoli, Rome and London, retracing trajectories and acts of transmission of Libyan Jewish heritage. Featuring a series of interviews and objects from family archives, Spadaro will share a strand of her research on the geographies and languages of memory of Libya.

A lecturer in Italian history at the University of Liverpool, Spadaro’s research explores media and the languages of memory in the 21st century, with a focus on Libya, Tunisia and Italy. She has been a ‘Society of Libyan Studies-British School at Rome’ fellow and visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory, Institute of Modern Languages Research, SAS University of London.

Her first monograph Una colonia Italiana: Incontri, memorie e rappresentazioni tra Italia e Libia is a study of the memories and social practices of Italian colonial families from Tripoli and Benghazi. Her most recent publication, co-edited with Katrina Yeaw, was included in the Special Issue of the Journal of North African Studies that looked into gender and transnational histories of Libya.

For more: http://translatingcultures.org.uk

Adam Benkato: Unexpected Voices (Tracing the Libyan Past in Sound)

Date: Saturday 12 May (14:30-16:00)

Libyan-American scholar and writer Adam Benkato will be exploring some very unexpected voices from the Libyan past, preserved in a recently discovered archive of vinyl LPs recorded in Libya in the 1940s. He will consider how these may contribute to Libyan memory and heritage and how they parallel the ways in which we as individuals recollect the past and the disappearing signposts.

“We view the past through images or text. Though these may be intimate and may stimulate memories, conversations, and emotions, they are also two-dimensional and are removed from the people who made them or are in them. But when we have the opportunity to hear voices, we have access to a different kind of past—one we hear directly rather than recreate for ourselves.” Adam Benkato

Benkato was raised in Houston, Texas and has lived in Benghazi and London and is now based in Berlin. His research engages with Libyan language, literature and history and addressing themes of heritage, diaspora, and post-coloniality. The curator of The Silphium Gatherer, it is a blog focused on scholarship of Libya in the arts, histories, ethnography, linguistics, literature, music, and urban studies.

For more: https://silphiumgatherer.com/

‘Retracing A Disappearing Landscape’ is generously supported and funded by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), DARF Publishers, British Council and private individuals.

​For more information on the P21 Gallery: http://p21.gallery/

For more information on Najlaa El-Ageli (Noon Arts Projects): https://www.noonartsprojects.com

Above Image: The Ghazala by Alla Budabbus

Note: This article was first published circa March 2018

Textural Threads: A Collective Show Redefining The Female Space And Emerging Art From MENA

Curated by Najlaa El-Ageli, the ‘Textural Threads’ exhibition forms an integral part of the Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2016. The AWAN is an annual event in March that celebrates Arab female artists in London, by offering them the platform to increase the visibility of their artwork and exposing their talent to newer audiences. The AWAN is organised by Arts Canteen.

United by what can only be described as the fearless feminine spirit, Textual Threads brings five strong emerging artists who will inspire, challenge and make you marvel at the different creative ways each has chosen to approach the topics impacting on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region today, whilst offering internal transformations. With a womanly abandon in the use and choice of different textures and methods, what is pertinent to the Arab is revealed, with a great cross-section of origins coming from Syria, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and one artist who is half-Algerian and half-Bulgarian.

From Dima Nashawi’s elegant illustrations that tell the personal tale of being a Syrian living in London, to the use of bold brush strokes of Arabic script on newsworthy photography by the young Libyan Takwa Barnosa, to the captivating digital prints on soft silk material by the Algerian Hania Zaazoua, these artists are reclaiming the imaginative terrain. They all show how art can be the cathartic measure that keeps one sane amidst the crazy dramas playing outside on the streets of a blighted region; or, as in some case, by looking psychologically within for answers.

The five artists striving to advance a peace, hope and love agenda, as well as celebrating womanhood itself and defying simple categorisations of what it means to be an artist from MENA are: Meryem Meg (Algeria-Bulgaria), Dima Nashawi (Syria), Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail (Saudi Arabia), Hania Zaazoua (Algeria) and Takwa Barnosa (Libya).

Takwa Barnosa (Libya)

The young 18-year-old Takwa Barnosa is a Libyan artists who is still studying for her bachelor’s in Fine Arts at the University of Tripoli, but whose artwork has already caused a positive stir. Talented and inventive, she fuses Arabic calligraphy with different forms of mixed media. Utilising powerful newsworthy photographs that range in subject but concerning Libya, she writes over them with word messages to challenge the content of the story told within.

Barnosa doesn’t shy away from the difficult existential passage in which the Libyans find themselves, directly addressing the current status of political chaos, anarchy and general disorder. For example, one of her images hints at the burning petrol and the human costs entangled with its production. She also brings to the attention the unfortunate displacement of the Tawerghas in Libya as well as the drowning of migrants who are washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Her choice of word and vivid colours is always substantial and engaging, be it splashed on the digital image or painted on her canvas in various sizes. From the themes of death, to war and peace, dream and fear that apply universally, to the more specific issues relevant to Libya, where she comments on recent events and leaving them open to one’s own judgement. Her ‘Lost’ piece brings to attention the troublingly recent destruction of the Italian artefacts in Tripoli, with the Gazelle statue that was demolished by the attempts to deny colonial history.

Barnosa has given a statement to Nahla Ink: “Most of my works discuss the situation in the community that I live in. I have seen many acts and events happening and that are still taking place, especially in the past two years in Libya. I have tried to show the parts that I have experienced and felt through my artworks.”

Meryem Meg (Algeria-Bulgaria)

Meryem Meg is the 25-year-old Algerian-Bulgarian artist with a multi-disciplinary background and a specialty in graphic design. Keen on the themes of fertility, birth and the cycles within nature, she draws upon North African and amazigh marks and symbols in her work. Creating optical illusions and movement through the lines, colours and geometric shapes, Meg’s aim is to impact on the mind and create a mystical experience for the viewer, as well as to empower women through her visual affirmations.

In some of her work, Meg also challenges the Orientalist lens looking at the North African female and providing an alternative that is much deeper and far more complex. Utilising the local motifs that are used within textiles, tattoos and ceramics, she demonstrates the systems of knowledge and the ways in which the indigenous communities have structured themselves and told their stories over the eons.

She has provided a statement: “The works are a reflection of my Afro-European heritage where I am also making the contrast with a more contemporary visual influence including urban cultures. Exploring geometry, I use a gestural approach allowing what is typically rigid in structure to flow organically. The desired effect is to captivate and stimulate a sense of self-contemplation akin to a spiritual experience, created to interact with one another synergistically.”

Meg offers four pieces for the ‘Textural Threads’ collective show, two of which belong to a black and white series made with water-based paint on paper and the other two which have been created with acrylic, aerosol and rose water on paper. Using the ancient symbols with diamond, triangular and circular shapes, she builds a rhythmic feel with other lines as she explores fertility and life celebration with the joyful colours to uplift the spirit.

Dima Nashawi (Syria)

The Syrian Dima Nashawi is an artist who strongly believes that art goes hand in hand with social activism and is a powerful means for peace building and engaging with human rights. Although her art illustrations are very delicate, feminine, beautiful and intricate, they actually carry a very powerful message regarding Syria and the longing for return to her hometown of Damascus. Using smooth and curved lines in her illustrations, she attempts to simplify real stories and bring them closer to the audience.

Nashawi’s life and work journeys have so far seen her travel from Syria to Jordan, Lebanon and now London, where she is studying Art and Cultural Management at King’s college. With a bachelor’s in Sociology, she has also studied Fine Arts and worked as an illustrator-animator for magazines and children’s websites as well as undertaking social work with the UNHCR to help refugees.

For this exhibition, she presents the incredible illustration fairy-tale titled ‘The Mystery of Names in Raindrops’ and other pieces. The former is an imaginary tale about a little girl Lana and her mother, as they enter a world in which a witch lives in a forest and oddly collects raindrops in a jar that are brought to her by deer in return for lashes she makes out of spider web.

Although initially the witch seems an evil character who weaves curtains from girls’ braids, Lana later discovers that she is kind as she also makes carpets and blankets from the silk of cocoon and camel’s hair. Significantly, it is in the names written on the raindrops that we find the real stories of Syrians who have been struggling against the regime or other radical elements, with some detained and others who have lost their lives due to the current war situation.

In six other illustrations, Nashawi brings her whimsical creatures: a man who asks a young girl about the meaning of the name Dima, an image of two lovers and the images titled ‘Waiting’, ‘Damascus In My Head’, ‘On My Way My Lonely Planet’ as well as the ‘Tribute to Reyhaneh Jabbari’.

Nashawi: “My work deals with the moments of complex emotions that I have felt through personal interactions with my daily surroundings. My art is a revolt against injustice and to support social and political activism and movements. I am expressing an opinion, advocating and telling different stories to break stereotypes and mainstream media’s narratives. The current power of art is in delivering messages about Syria that the world is not paying attention to.”

Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail (Saudi Arabia)

The British-Saudi Arabian Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail belongs to a number of different worlds that have formed the woman she has become today. With a master’s in Photography and the use of digital processes, she looks into identity, the negotiation of personal space as well as in dealing with the interactions between the contrasting collective cultural memories and how these may pose problems for the individual.

Having been raised partly in Saudi Arabia and now living as a Muslim female in the UK, she ventures into the questioning of oneself and her potential as an artist. She weaves this ‘otherness’ into her practice and looks into the subject of self in an ever-changing global society. She is the Co-founder of Variant Space, an online art collective for Muslim female artists.

Al Lail here offers images that form her ‘Hidden Colours’ series as well as two images from the ‘Rooftop’ project. In the first series, she explained: ‘This charts my personal identity that is defined by my mix of cultural backgrounds, with a Saudi father and an Indian mother as well as growing up in Britain. It explores my attempts to accustom myself to three cultural identities, whilst imposed ideas of where I belong or how I should be cluttered my self-perception.

“The colours reveal the hidden emotional journey attached to the hybridity of the cultures I grew up with. The images were taken using a photo-booth in order to interrupt the space which is used to define identity and produces a conforming, standardised image, which I manipulated. The same image is then changed gradually in reference to the way my identity is constantly in flux. The colours act as a force or barrier to conceal and reveal the self.”

In terms of the ‘Rooftop’ project, Al Lail said: ‘Identity and space are intimately connected; space delineates the scope for identity. This is particularly the case in the context of Saudi Arabia – space necessitates the very ground for a coherent identity. I use the rooftop – open space – as a metaphor for progressive, liberated and open-ended possibility. By placing a young girl – symbolising innocence – in such a space, I am trying to describe how identity flourishes best when there are no barriers and no ceilings.”

Hania Zaazoua (Algeria)

Hania Zaazoua is the 39-year-old Algerian designer, visual artist and stylist. She is a graduate of Fine Arts and woks as the Design Director at Bergson & Jung in Algiers. She has also established her own interior design brand called ‘Brokk Art’ in 2012.

Zaazoua draws her inspiration from personal wanderings, be they real or virtual and creates work that flirts with a trivial dream world and explores an alternative version of the society that she lives in. Enjoying the use of paradoxes, she looks at the complex relationship between the cultures of the East And West.

Using digitally manipulated images that she presents on soft silk material – that is stretched onto circular embroidery frames – her work deconstructs and recomposes popular or historical cultural icons and manipulates the tales being told.

In the ‘Young Ladies of Icosium’, we see a vision of the timeless Algerian women, renowned for storytelling and wisdom. As leading characters, they all present both an interface and an interference between East and West. Set in an undetermined time and space, they allude to the themes of decolonisation and self-empowerment and also refer to Picasso’s ‘Young Ladies of Avignon’.

In ‘Wonder Lalla’, the artist creates an Algerian version of the warrior-princess super heroine. Whether contemporary or ancient, she is a multi-generational role model. The use of the title ‘Lalla’ is of Berber origin that signifies a mark of distinction for the woman. The other works presented in ‘Textural Threads’ are: ‘Discretion Zone’, ‘Mahmoud & Tassadite’ and ‘Daydreaming’.

Zaazoua has provided a statement as well for Nahla Ink: “In a world where reality is fantasy… that specific prism, different and sometimes close, I propose an alternative world that is dreamlike and almost falsely naïve. I use clichés picked up from the media, literature material and films that have references to the West; but, being from the East, I create the reactive heroines, some who are real and others fictional.”

The ‘Textural Threads’ exhibition will be on display from 2-19 March, 2016 at the Rich Mix venue in Shoreditch, London.

For more information on Arts Canteen and the AWAN Festival: https://artscanteen.com/

For more on Najlaa El-Ageli: https://www.noonartsprojects.com/

Note: This article was first published circa March 2016

Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI): The Pop-Up Mosque About To Go Virtual!

Welcome to the pop-up mosque. The one where prayer is often led by women. And where vegan food is served at special events.

Just like any other mosque this Ramadan, the Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI) will gather its congregation for Friday prayers, sermons, Islamic recitations and some organised Iftars. But unlike the others, two things will stand out. One is that their venue is not permanent but rather a ‘pop-up’ dependent on donations; and, second, if you do attend, be prepared for a little shock as they do things differently from the traditional sense and you might not understand what they are getting at.

The IMI is a small but slowly growing group of like-minded liberal Muslims whose aim is to create a new type of Islamic community, where the strict religious rules don’t apply; and, where the practice – rather than the theory – of anyone being able to attend their prayers, sermons, recitations and discussions feeling free of orthodox expectations can be realised.

For the IMI, it doesn’t matter from which religious or non-religious sect you belong, you are welcome in this mosque. You might even be invited to their readings of poetry, art exhibitions or picnics and BBQs that offer vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options! The only rule is that participants and attendees are respectful of each other, not abusive nor violent in active or passive ways.

As they have not been able yet to raise enough money for a fixed carbon-neutral building – as they would like it to be! – they have so far functioned ad hoc and managed to meet in venues across London, Oxford, Manchester and Bristol; in a range of places like community and arts centres, restaurants, outdoor spaces, the Muslim Institute and even holding an inter-faith concert in a church in Waterloo and prayers in a Buddhist Centre.

But great controversy also surrounds their choices and behaviour. For example, prayers and sermons are often led by women and there is no compulsion to even take part or cover the head with a hijab. Women and men stand mixed together in prayer lines and sometimes their Friday discussions might seem a little too philosophical. Some of the past topics included ‘Hijab and Mosques’, ‘Mental Health and Jinn Possession’ or ‘Jokes! Humour in the Hadiths.’

In their defence, the IMI explained: “Part of our understanding of inclusivity in Islam is the theme of non-compulsion in religion. During prayers, not everybody wants to participate or in the same way. We feel that this inter-community aspect is particularly important as differences among sects are too often used to justify violence around the world. Additionally, we have had a number of ex-Muslims and non-religious people attend who in some cases haven’t prayed in years. With our non-compulsion principle, they have returned to their faith and begun to re-engage with Islam.”

Set up two years ago by two women, the first goal was to create a space where women can feel more at ease than they do in central mosques; but, later on, they developed the idea and opened their doors to anyone from any diverse Islamic background or minority who might feel awkward or not well catered to in the usual sense.

Co-Founder Tamsila Tuaqir​ said:”In our two holiest of mosques in the Muslim world at the Kaaba in Mecca and the Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, there is no physical division between men and women and women do not stand behind men but side-by-side. We aim to emulate this highest example. There is established tradition of this from the time of the Prophet Mohammed and plenty of scholarship that discusses the permissibility of this, for example, Abdul An-Naim.”

The overall remit of the IMI also connects them with other groups, like Islamic social justice movements, as they tackle other modern issues, like the environment, arts, mental health and the liberation of Palestine.

IMI members come from many backgrounds, including: Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Quranist, Salafi, Braelvi, Islamic Feminist, Secular, Conservative and Reverts. Whilst their ethnic composition reflects British diversity with: Arab, Malaysian, Central European, South Asian, East African and Persian. The community is now international with contact groups in Malaysia, Kashmir and Switzerland.

With the world now so much closer and easily connected, the IMII’s next ambition is of the digital kind. Already, they hold Skype-Koranic discussion circles and reading groups led by a Sheik that have proved friendly, popular and accessible by engaging more people across time-zones.

The IMI said: “Dependent on the technology available and costs, we are developing the theory and investigating the practicalities of a virtual-interactive space where people can enter the mosque from any location from anywhere around the world and take part in prayers, sermons and discussions. We’re talking about more than just a video call but a 4-Dimensional physical experience that includes audio, visual and also eventually olfactory.”

The IMI is very serious about accessibility and they adapt any location for wheelchair users, as well as conducting the call to prayer in British Sign Language. They are presently developing their mission statement into a picture document for people whose first language is not English or those with learning difficulties to be able to understand their ethos.

The IMI is a voluntary organisation entirely dependent on donations and the work of its volunteers. They are currently recruiting for a volunteer fundraiser, accountant and graphic designer to work a few hours a week.

For more information: www.inclusivemosqueinitiative.org.

Note: This article was first published circa July 2014

Bayda Asbridge: Weaving Away The Tears

In Honour Of A Syrian Mother

Death is the ultimate separation, but not being able to attend your parent’s funeral makes it that far more difficult to grieve and deal with the loss. When an unfair bloody war is also taking place in the background and you are in far away exile, there is no option left for the psychological survival but to claim the personal story.

Bayda Asbridge is a 52 year-old Syrian-British artist who is currently resident in Worcester, Massachusetts (USA). When she left Syria in 1994, she vowed to never return. So when her mother died in Damascus at the end of 2012, she found herself alone and without the only four people in the world who could have helped share her pain and with whom to shed the tears.

Bayda has four sisters who are mostly estranged from war-torn Syria. Although they all grew up in Kuwait and used to travel back and forth to Syria, now two are based in the United Kingdom, one in Dubai, one in Syria and Bayda in the US.

Weaving Above Other Art Forms

A versatile artist, Asbridge could have turned to any one of the art mediums that she is highly skilled at for catharsis; she is an accomplished Asian painter, a sculptor and photographer. But instead, she turned to Saori weaving, a recent weaving technique from Japan, to help her with the emotionally charged project of grieving.

She said to Nahla Ink:  “I knew weaving would be the answer to help in our joint grief because it links us to our background and identity as Arab women from Syria. Our country has always been famous for its woven fabrics, looms, damask and other textiles and formed an important centre on the Silk Road route going as far back as the Middle Ages with its celebrated bazaars, crafts and artisans.

“Weaving also makes me feel privileged and honoured every time. It has tremendously helped me with sorting out many issues, especially in dealing with the past and the nostalgia for my homeland, people and language. But, most importantly, it has made the dead ends of my life form a full circle that tells me who I am and what my purpose is here on Earth.

“Ever since learning under the instructions of Mihoko Wakabayashi in Worcester from February 2012 onwards, something deep within me has triggered. On some days, I even feel like getting down on my knees to embrace the loom in love and tenderness.

“I think also about all the women who have ever spent hours in front of their looms making items for their loved ones but how sad that much of their efforts have been taken for granted.”

In Honour of Hayat Nasser

Asbridge’s mother, Hayat Nasser, was herself a seamstress. On every happy occasion, she would stitch nice dresses for the five girls to look good, pretty and presentable. She also sewed every other garment to save money while their father was moaning in the background about the noise of the sewing machine.

The piece in her honour of her mother is still in process, but already it is ten metres long and divided into five sections with different colours to represent each one of the five sisters. Nasser’s face has also been silk-printed in the centre of each section to show how she is still in the depths of their hearts.

The other four sisters are helping out by locating old family mementos and photos of childhood days and growing up. As Bayda has been away so long, she left behind most of her personal history and belongings in Syria and in Kuwait.

With Saori weaving, one starts with an idea, sets a warp and gets shuttles, bobbins and a variety of yarns ready for a special loom that has travelled all the way from Japan to help create a woven piece through a spiritual journey of weaving. The yarns can be wool, cotton, silk, natural fibres or acrylic

After that, you can add roving, felts, paper or even cellophane. Once the woven bit is finished, you have an extra option to decorate it with pebbles, shells, driftwood, beads, pods, dried plants and even tribal jewellery.

Haunting Demons From The Past

The experience of reflecting on the past has for Asbridge, brought back some bad memories and the demons she had originally escaped from twenty years ago, when she was 29 years old.

She said: “Although I felt loved by both my parents as a child, it all changed when I was a teenager and woke up to the fact that my father was an unhappy man. Effectively, all he wanted was a son to carry his name but instead ended up with five daughters. He was even called ‘Abou Yousef’ when he never had a son.

“My father finally alienated himself from us and I could no longer view him as a role model. Even when I got married young, his aspirations for me ceased and I felt let down because my first husband was abusive but he turned a blind eye because he found in him the missing son.”

Perhaps this is what made it easy for her to leave like a nomad to start a new life somewhere far away, even not knowing what would happen to her. But the situation was so bad that she was ready to take the risk.

Asbridge; “I ran away to survive because in the Middle East I felt suffocated just like my mother before me. Yes, she was strong but depressed due to the limits of her life and the restrictions of the society and the cultural expectations to have a son, when all she got was five girls.

“Even though scientifically it has been proven that the man’s sperm is what determines the sex of the child, my mother felt devalued and unappreciated by a tradition that only worships the male. She was a victim of an abusive marital relationship and a system that lets many other Arab Muslim women down.

“I am also angry with her because the five daughters were willing to take care of her if she decided to leave my father. We promised to work and support her but she was scared and stayed in an awful relationship that left her hollow and bitter and without much dignity, pride or hope.

“When the offer of a scholarship came to go to the United States, I didn’t hesitate and left immediately never wanting to go back; because I felt that I should have never been born there in the first place. Now, I am happy to belong to a Western world of openness, logical thinking, freedom of expression and relative gender equality that I don’t have to be punished for being a girl.”

“As for my father, I haven’t included him in the project even though I have a picture of him that my sisters sent me that I could incorporate. Yes, I do feel a bit guilty because he is alive and retired in Syria and I am working on improving my relationship with him especially in his old age. But I can’t dedicate this piece to any one else other than my mother and four sisters.”

Syrian Living In The West

For the past twenty years, Asbridge has built a new life. Happily married with a 15-year-old daughter, Maya, she is immersed in lots of local projects in her adopted hometown. Although her biggest passion and priority is art, she also teaches ESL part-time and works as a medical and legal interpreter as well as giving creative classes at Worcester Art Museum.

She said: ““Even being far away, I am always Syrian and I continue to live Syria every day of my life. It is just that I now have two identities, one Oriental and one Western and I like both. In my mind they don’t clash because I choose the best of both. I also tell my daughter that she must visit Syria with or without me.

“I don’t run or hide from my identity. My first language is Arabic and I use it for my translator-work into English and I still enjoy reading it and writing with it. I am also a woman; and, yes, I struggled with that for many years and felt it as a discomfort but now I have accepted it and am proud of it.

“The conflict in Syria leaves me speechless. Social injustice started the French Revolution and the perestroika in the ex-Soviet Union. Now, it is time for the Arab world to revolt in disgust at what the people in power are doing to the working man and woman and the growing gap between different social classes.”

Healing Fibres – The Future

With the early experience of marital abuse and painfully watching her mother going through so much worse for over thirty years, has given Asbridge the impetus to help others by raising awareness of the problem and using art as therapy.

She has started a local Worcester initiative called ‘Healing Fibres’, calling on students to create art work which addresses social, political, economic, environmental and gender issues in a free-style way. Participants can use weaving, knitting, sculpture or installation, as long as it includes fibres.

As part of it, she is currently and proudly displaying and exhibiting the piece in honour of her mother. She also hopes the project succeeds and lasts well into the future.

For more information about Bayda Asbridge’s Art: https://www.baydasart.com/

Note: Saori Weaving

Saori weaving originates in Japan and its philosophy is rooted in Buddhist Zen practices. It is based on the idea that weaving doesn’t have to be restrictive and mathematical but that it can be free, inclusive and accommodate different abilities. The Saori loom is user-friendly, light, portable and it also can be folded and put away when not in use.

Unlike traditional weaving where one is restricted to a specific design or pattern that looks perfect and machine-made, in Saori the emphasis is on the spirit of the weaver, her or his abilities, their personal interpretations and feelings that filter through the work.

Note: This article was first published circa February 2014

UK Anti-Slavery Day: SCEME On Sex Trafficking In The Middle East

Human trafficking today is considered one of six types that manifest modern-day slavery; and, especially of sex trafficking. The other ways are bonded labour, forced labour, child slavery, early forced marriage and descent-based slavery.

On the occasion of the UK Anti-Slavery Day 18 October, also coinciding with EU Anti-Trafficking Day, I spoke with Iman Abou-Atta, Founder of the London-based charity SCEME (Social Change through Education in the Middle East) and her colleague Sarah Barnes, to highlight what is happening today in the female sex trafficking situation in the Middle East.

The official definition of human trafficking according to the UN Palermo Protocol: “The recruitment, transportation and harbouring of a person by threat, force, coercion, abduction, deception, or abuse of their vulnerability with the aim to exploit them.”

SCEME: Karamatuna Programme & Consequences of the Arab Spring

Iman Abou-Atta: “We were one of the first NGOs to ever speak in the UK about the trafficking of Arab girls in the Middle East; and, in particular, the plight of Iraqi young girls who were either being trafficked within Iraq itself or were refugees in the camps across the borders.

“The topic had brief coverage in the British newspapers before we published the Karamatuna Report in 2011, but it somehow didn’t capture as much attention as it deserved. At the time, our research team discovered that Iraqi girls as young as 10 or 12 were being taken into Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for sexual exploitation.

“Whereas today as a consequence of the Arab Spring our focus is on the women and underage girls this time being trafficked out of Syria. It is our most urgent task to complete a second phase of the Karamatuna Programme so we can gather all the facts, proof and evidence before we can act and make recommendations.”

In March this year, the UNHCR estimated that the number of Syrians either registered as refugees or waiting to be registered as refugees has now exceeded 1 million.

SCEME: “We are very concerned about Syria especially because so many of the refugees from Iraq went into Syria. So we have a huge group of vulnerable people there who were victims of trafficking or domestic slavery before the conflict in Syria broke out. So now you don’t only have the Syrians themselves who are potentially vulnerable but you have the existing refugees as well.

“Currently, we are hearing lots of stories about what is going on in the camps where the war displaced end up and in particular those based in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. In the Summer 2012, we heard of adverts being posted by men looking for Syrian brides.

“We know that some of these Syrian girls in the camps in Jordan are ending up in Saudi Arabia through the use of the unofficial and temporary Muta’a marriages that are legalised in parts of the Middle East.”

Muta’a marriage is also known as the ‘pleasure marriage’. It is a fixed and usually short-term contract where a specific duration and a monetary compensation are agreed upon in advance. It is a private and verbal exchange marriage between a man and a woman.

SCEME: “This set-up of a sham marriage can last for a couple of weeks, days or even just hours and what is worse is that after they’ve taken away and used, they are then discarded and sent back to their families in the camps and potentially pregnant.

“So you end up having an initial problem of a girl who is sold to an older man for a small amount of money possibly between US $130-250 that the family obviously needs; but then she is pregnant and the family has to deal with the maintenance of her and the child. This girl now cannot even get remarried which is another big problem in the community.

“We have even some anecdotal evidence coming from Lebanon where muta’a marriage is used as just another word for prostitution, so it is literally a two to three hour arrangement.

“The girls involved will have left the refugee camps and become vulnerable in the cities for so many different reasons; but effectively, they end up in forced prostitution. This is something we need to look into further, as at the moment it is anecdotal.”

The SCEME Report on Human Trafficking Laws and Regulations

SCEME will soon be launching their ‘Report on Human Trafficking Laws & Regulations’, which has already been prepared by their legal team and finalised in June 2013.

This looks at how different countries deal with the issue of human trafficking and related laws in Europe, the United States and the Middle East. It also considers European Union standards on trafficking, labour and domestic violence and makes a best to worst comparison analysis.

SCEME: “The aim of this Report will be to help us and other interested organisations to better understand the laws especially on trafficking and domestic slavery on an international level. In particular, we want to know how we can more effectively implement projects and to be able to campaign and lobby so that the laws can better protect women.

“It does a best practice comparison at the end and is a subtle way to lobby Middle Eastern countries so they can get a better ranking and to improve their status in other ways. This is an independent report done by our legal volunteers.

“Yes, it is hard to push the governments, but at least they can become more aware and aim to improve. Ironically, the Report had initially showed Syria as one of the higher ranking places before it fell. Now it has become one of the worst in under a year.”

Note: SCEME is a not-for-profit organisation based in London, established in 2010. SCEME has developed programmes to promote the rights and liberties of women and their children; particularly, those who are refugees or migrants in the MENA region. It also aims to support the same to become active citizens of the world through the provision of educational workshops, training and mentorship.

For more information and how you can get involved: https://www.sce-me.org/

For more information on UK Anti-Slavery Day: https://www.antislaveryday.com/

Note: This article was first publisher circa October 2013

An Existential Encounter: Photographer Marwah Almugait’s Mood Diary

According to the American existential psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, Existentialism is the philosophic notion of self awareness and its form of therapy explores the facts of life and how they affect the individual without  judgement or bias. It enables one to approach the issues relevant to all feeling and thinking human beings at different consciousness or awareness levels, that might otherwise be labeled morbid.

At such an intersection, one is forced to face and resolve the predicament of aloneness, mortality and impending death, suffering, the case of a frightening freedom and our entailed responsibility.

In ‘the Mood Diary’, Saudi Arabian photographer Marwah Almugait makes a brave attempt to observe and be witness to the inner subjective experience of her subject Mona as she battles the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder.

One extra challenge is the location of the project in Saudi Arabia, a conservative country that doesn’t promote the exposure of difficult psychological truths as they impact on the local individual. Rather the culture would substitutes therapy terms within a religious framework that causes the personal burden to be much heavier to carry with an added stigma.

Through Almugait’s moving and powerful images, we see Mona grapple with her inner demons at home and in her day to day reality. With an afflicted mind, the pictures reflect the highs of her mania and the lows of depression, the cyclical nature of mood swings, the anguish, despair, sense of loss and grief for a life that could or couldn’t have been lived.

There are images that show the fragility and delicateness of the subject’s psychological identity within the disorder. Also, the role of the past on influencing the present and regrets are hinted at, as well as the sense of revolving realities where the manic energy and depression are played out.

Still we must not take the subject as an object in this photographic project or confine Mona to her illness. She is a living, breathing and moving human being who has affected the photographer in ways only possible within an existential encounter.

One can make an analogy here with the practice of psychotherapy. It occurs between a qualified person and a client in a formal setting, just as the photographer here rises to the challenge. Its objective is to help the client come to terms with her situation by examining her choices and learning to positively change them by reflecting back with words or as in this case with pictures. The good therapist also validates the personal struggle and aids the client to move forwards with the insights gained.

Underlying existential therapy is the need to alleviate conditions and symptoms that we all share and experience to some extent or other: the sense of anxiety, panic, dread, nihilism, carrying shame and guilt, apathy, alienation, rage, resentment, addiction, violent emotions and ultimately madness. Through the process of reflection, we can get to a place where we accept the realities of death and finitude, and knowing that we have the freedom to take responsibility for our lives. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: “We are our choices.”

Looking into the techniques used in existential therapy, the therapist during a formal session has to firstly create the safe setting for the client and put aside any preconceptions or dogma regarding the client’s condition. The therapist can thus interact to discover and explore the client’s subjective experience of ‘being’ and reality. Whilst the usual methods are to listen, reflect back and gently nudge the client through verbal exchange and body language, it is also possible to utilise more creative ways to achieve similar insight.

In this project it is evident that Mona was open and receptive to the artistic experiment and happy to express herself in a way that perhaps she wasn’t able to do so before alone or with others. She took a proactive role in choosing concepts for the images that the photographer took and the photographer followed, by directing the shots whilst suspending judgement and focusing on the personal client story.

Through the images and clever use of camera, lens and lighting, we are invited to enter the subject’s inner reality. We also come to realise that the photographer took an approach that was without denial, without avoidance and without distortion of her subject.

It brings to mind Rollo May, a leader in the existential therapy movement, who wrote: “I do not believe in toning down the daimonic. This gives a sense of false comfort. The real comfort can come only in the relationship of the therapist and the client or patient.”

According to May: “The encounter with the being of another person has the power to shake one profoundly and may potentially be very anxiety-provoking. It may also be joy-creating. In either case, it has the power to grasp and move one deeply.”

The therapeutic relationship thus requires the building of a sacred trust to let in a closeness, a warmth and honesty moving both participants to human and psychological awareness. In this way, the Mood Diary has been, for the photographer and muse, such a powerful exchange that will affect both of them for quite some time.

For Almugait: “This project opened my mind into the darkness and I wanted to put the light to see what is really inside. It was like having the keys to a locked room and I’ve seen the unseen. Through the photographic process, I felt like I was x-raying what was in the mind of my subject. Truly, with photojournalism, you never know where you might end up.”

To quote Yalom again: “The realization and knowledge that we influence others in ways that are positive can provide a sense of meaning in our lives. That is also why loneliness is so deadly.”

Note: This article was originally written as a foreword to a photographic exhibition by the Saudi Arabian Marwah Almugait.

Note: This article was first published circa September 2012

Are Libyans Ready for Therapy?

Very few Libyans are familiar with the talking cure. They know little about its theories and almost nothing of its practice. Perhaps they never felt the need to rely on its wisdom and have dismissed its potential benefits. In our culture, one’s emotional and mental states are seen as a part of their spiritual character. If they complain of psychological distress, it is seen as a failure in not finding peace in God or religion.

But in Libya today, in every town and city, there is plenty of walking wounded whose pain is not visible; but whose lives are blighted with personal misery and unhappiness. When you look close, there is every case of mild to severe depression, anxiety and panic, unrequited grief from loss, nightmares and flashbacks of trauma. All of these are identifiable psychological and psychiatric disorders. In truth, they don’t even need an expert to recognise the damage.

Instead of letting them suffer for longer, we can perhaps turn to therapy as a viable option to help the Libyans gain perspective. The aim of therapy is to address negative emotional and mental symptoms in an intelligent, humane and sensitive manner and resolve inner turmoil and conflict. It would indeed be a fatal error if Libya does not to explore the possibility. One would hope also that a Ministry of Health would sooner or later deal with the crisis.

Ideally it should provide the knowledge, application and access required to support patients, as therapy has been shown to improve lives with its gentle intervention. There is much good and great benefit for individuals to have private time and a safe space to speak to a trusted practitioner to help them gain closure and be able to move on.

In Libya we’ve never grasped the usefulness of such a method, but the obvious impact of the revolution on certain groups of individuals cannot be denied nor swept under the carpet.

In the aftermath of war, we have male and female rape victims, ex-prisoners, ex-rebel soldiers, young and old widowed women and many others carrying heavy burdens. Being human and vulnerable, they need collective support and non-judgement. The culture has to change its wrong attitude and prejudice towards mental health issues and discard ignorant taboos and stigmas.

One new project to help has been proposed by 40-year-old British-Libyan cognitive behavioural therapist, Taregh Shaban. With his extensive experience in the UK in psychological therapies, he now wants to take the practice of CBT to Libya. Funded by the World Medical Camp for Libya charity based in London, he will head to Misrata sometime in the New Year to train twenty psychology graduates in this model.

Shaban explained: “There is plenty of need and few of us around. There is also a serious lack of expertise and training in what is called ‘evidence-based’ psychological therapies. In Misrata, for example, there are only two psychiatrists for a population of approximately 400,000; and, the psychology graduates are only a little better informed than a layperson. I personally wouldn’t have them see people, as they can presently do more damage than good.”

With a budget of £30,000, he is waiting for the green light so he can ask for a work sabbatical from his job in Oxford and commit to the project. He will work in conjunction with the Libyan psychiatrists, Dr Ahmed Sewehli and Dr Mustafa Shuqmani, at the University of Misrata and take with him a qualified mental health nurse and two other CBT practitioners from the UK.

At the same time, Shaban is proud that the CBT pioneer of the low-intensity psychological intervention, Professor Dave Richards, has agreed to provide the teaching material and advice on the phone free of charge.

I asked Shaban to give me his full take on this project. 

Shaban said: “Based on extensive research, we know that the CBT model is very effective in treating depression and anxiety disorders. Another advantage is that it can deliver results in a relatively short time span. Primarily based on helping the patient challenge the way he thinks about himself, the world and people around him, he is allowed to replace any erroneous thoughts and beliefs with more realistic ones – leading him, hopefully, to behave in a more helpful way and ultimately to feel better.

“CBT also focuses on the here and now – as opposed to other therapies that look to the past – and includes the patient doing homework between sessions so that he can practice and develop the techniques learned in therapy. The ultimate aim of any good CBT therapist is to make himself redundant and for the patient to become his own therapist. CBT is therefore quite demanding and requires commitment.

“There are now several levels of qualification and training in CBT interventions and I believe we can train the Libyan graduates to deliver Steps I and II of the system. Within 45 days of workshops, trainees can begin the work and I envisage that each will eventually have a caseload of up to 40 patients.

‘Our goal is to teach the modules directly relevant to Libya with the view of building capacity for the future. I will stay on to supervise and make sure the trainees apply the knowledge correctly. After three months, we will evaluate the project; and, if we do well, we can then think about rolling it out to other towns and cities.

“Mainly, we will deal with individuals exhibiting trauma-type symptoms, having depression and a whole host of anxiety disorders. We will also help some to deal with grief and others suffering from the effects of negative intra-familial and social relationships and adjustment to tragic life events.

“These latter types of cases are not strictly speaking within the training brief we have set ourselves, but I suspect we will do some sort of training in supportive-counselling skills towards the end of the project.

“Importantly, we want access to our services through initial consultations at the poly-clinics and general hospitals in Misrata – so that we can perhaps mediate some of the stigma attached to visiting specialist mental health establishments.

“For the rebel freedom fighters, of course, we face a tougher task. We are concerned about post-traumatic stress disorder and rehabilitation. Under usual circumstances, professional soldiers are trained and gradually exposed to the stress, anxiety and fear associated with live combat. Most professional soldiers also get a month out somewhere calm to decompress. This is done to reduce arousal levels and for them to re-acclimatise to a civilian lifestyle.

“Our fighters have had no such preparation and no subsequent period for readjustment. Some will still be on a high from the adrenaline rushes they experienced during the fighting and will need time in a safe rehabilitation environment; where they can have structured activity programmes, group therapy and offered skills training to prepare them to return back to normal life.

“Rape victims are another group who will need specialised help. One cannot begin to imagine the level of distress and awful feelings of self-guilt and shame- though unfounded – these very unfortunate people must be enduring. We need to reach them and work with them in a discrete and trusted environment.

“From my professional experience, I believe we should take advantage of these evidence-based therapy and counselling models offered in the West. CBT has proved to be very effective for common emotional difficulties in randomised controlled trials and is now recommended as the treatment of choice by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) in the UK.

“Yes, such models will need adaptation in a new cultural context, such as Libya, but they are a very useful starting point. My hope really is to offer these culturally sensitive psychological therapies to every Libyan who needs them, and to build capacity and resources in the country itself. I don’t know if this is too wild a dream but I sometimes think we have to aim for the absurd in order to reach the possible.”

One wishes Shaban every success, with the hope that those in most dire need get the treatment they deserve.

Note: This article was first published in The Libyan Magazine circa February 2012

Najwa Benshatwan: Libyan Female Author ‘Under The Radar’

An ugly shadow side of Libya’s history is that it was a slave market route for centuries under Ottoman rule, way before the Italian occupation and prior to Libya’s declared independence in 1951. Growing up in Libya, children might still hear stories from elders about the black maids who used to work in their household or about distant cousins in Africa who carry their same recognisable surnames.

There would be no elaboration on the reality of the trade that used to buy, sell and barter human beings and rarely admission of how the ancestors may have been involved in the mistreatment of those held captive. Few Libyans have the courage to revisit that period with its many ghosts or to bring up the racism issues that still persist in the culture.

Not up until now that the talented author Najwa Benshatwan has taken the task to heart by writing a novel so powerful, beautiful and so sensitively fashioned in the narrative voice of the slaves. She has creatively wrapped it up into a love story that touches upon the era and the taboo subjects that have never been exposed before.

Shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, ‘The Slave Pens’ has yet to be translated into English. Already, Benshatwan is being courted to turn it into different languages and to adapt it into a TV series or a film. This new positive intrigue by the literary world has been unexpected – as she has already successfully published two other novels and collections of short stories – but very much welcome.

For the Shubbak Festival 2017, I spoke with Benshatwan via Skype and we conversed in the Libyan dialect. She opened up not just about the book that will undoubtedly transform her artistic destiny; but, also, on the challenges she faced as a budding intellectual during the oppressive Gaddafi regime, how she managed to overcome obstacles put in her way and how she is now content to be in Rome, Italy where she can pursue her work without complications.

Benshatwan: “For a long time, I felt buried in Libya. Born in 1969, I was of the generations that were denied the right to learn European languages at school and it is still a source of anger for me that I don’t’ speak except very basic English. When I was young, my talent as a writer would be denied as my homework at the age of 11 became a source of suspicion amongst teachers, who could not believe that it was my work and not that of an adult.

“Later on when I went on to university in Benghazi, it was my beautiful handwriting in Arabic that was a problem. To trick my examiners not to recognise my paper, I forced myself to write with my left hand so they wouldn’t know it was me. I did also learn braille and sign language for a brief period when I specialised in working with deaf and blind children.

“In terms of my literary ambitions, under Gaddafi there was no intellectual freedom and I was always worried about not just the state control but family and societal controls too. It is only now in ‘The Slave Pens’ that I am much older and more confident that I can safely explore things like love and sex for example.

“So I turned to short story fiction and utilised symbolism when dealing with Libya as the essence and background of my tales. But I was careful to enter only competitions judged abroad and they were one way to gain recognition. But my work came to the scrutiny of the Libyan authorities who tried to lure me to write about the regime and its ideology which I refused to do.

“The situation worsened when I got arrested and charged for writing against the state with the publication my short story ‘His Excellency, the Eminence of the Void’. Afraid and terrified to spend a night in prison with criminals, I travelled all the way to Tripoli where I spent four hours under interrogation knowing that the maximum sentence could be execution.

“Although I was not convicted, they wouldn’t leave me in peace, making my life hell and sending spies at the university where I was teaching and forcing me to attend political events. It was like cat and mouse that I stopped publishing my work and planned to save up enough money to be able to make an escape.

“But things changed with the February Revolution. I had naively believed in the rebel fighters and the struggle so much that I gave them my savings. Then sadly realising that there would be no security in Libya, my next chance to leave came when I got accepted to study in Italy where I have been for the past four years.

“My time in Italy has not been easy. I have been lonely and had to face dire economic circumstances and the psychological turmoil that entails. I had to take all sorts of jobs to survive and it took time to learn Italian before I could complete my doctoral degree at La Piensa University in Rome.

“I wanted to dedicate my thesis to the slavery and human trafficking under the Ottoman period and the Islamic Empire because I was haunted by a black and white picture that I had seen in an Englishman’s traveller book… although I cannot remember the name of the book or the Italian photographer who must have captured the image around early 1900s.

“It was of black women slaves with a boy and a child. When I asked about the scene, I was told that the quarters where they used to live were commonly referred to in the local dialect as ‘pens’ in the way of an animal’s pen. I had the photo scanned and put as my screensaver since 2006.

“For years I couldn’t steal myself away from the characters and my imagination became immersed in contemplating their lives… that is what urged me to write and finish the novel. My hope for it is to be a wake up call for Libyans to learn from past mistakes and acknowledge how black slavery – both past and present – has impacted on our society, from the economic to the social, political, cultural, psychological and mental aspects.

“Overall I am happy to have explored this subject and I am proud to be the first Libyan woman to be shortlisted for the IPAF. I can now finally be able to dedicate more and more of my time to just being a writer.”

Benshatwan is scheduled to participate in the ‘Under The Radar’ talk that is part of the Shubbak Literature programme at the British Library. This interview article was written in collaboration with the Shubbak Festival 2017.

For more information about Shubbak Festival: http://www.shubbak.co.uk/

Note: This article was first published circa July 2017

Saleem Haddad: Author Opens Up About Debut Novel ‘Guapa’

Living in a politically volatile city in the Middle East, a young Arab drag queen – who is by day a tireless human rights activist – is arrested by the police in the early hours of the morning for being at a cinema which is a cruising spot for working class men. He is subjected to intrusive questioning and cruel abuse by the insertion of an egg-like contraption into his rectum to test and gage his homosexuality.

Once released, though, he doesn’t make a fuss of what has happened to him. Rather, he continues with his work via an international NGO to expose local government human rights’ violations. He is also not afraid to keep performing his drag queen act at Guapa, the queer nightclub that is home to all outcasts. A brave and proud soul, he will never deny his alternative sexuality even in a hostile environment and putting his life at further risk.

The drag queen is, of course, Maj and he is both real and not real, just like all the other characters and the events in Saleem Haddad’s debut novel ‘Guapa’. Written in the vulnerable male voice of Rasa, who confides about his gay love pain, Haddad expertly creates imaginary figures to reflect on the competing facets of Arab society, the culture and its conservative mores. It also depicts the political, economic and religious forces at war in the MENA region today.

‘Guapa’ readers will sense many a déjà vu moment as the unnamed city in the background can just as easily be Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Tunis or Cairo, that we have all either visited, lived in or seen through our computers and TV screens. This Arab city, its inhabitants and the dynamics at large are all in our collective subconscious anyway and don’t’ need to be pinned down to one place, as Haddad rightly makes this literary choice in an engaging and timely tale.

Rasa’s emotional torment and the unrequited love which threatens his reason and sanity is the main theme that enables Haddad to firstly capture our hearts – for love is love and it doesn’t’ discriminate. But as gay relations are taboo in most Middle Eastern countries, Haddad explores the not so public but private terrain from an insider perspective, as he himself is a gay Arab male who had to keep his sexuality hidden throughout his young adulthood until one day he found the courage to come out to his family and friends.

Connecting with our intellect too ‘Guapa’ features the arguments of the great known thinkers like Edward Said and Amin Maalouf on what influences the Arab identity vis-à-vis the Western world. When Rasa finds himself at a university in America in the aftermath of 9/11, he becomes the victim of ignorant prejudice and distrust by fellow students and it makes him realise that he may never be able to fully fit in there.

From Berlin, Haddad was kind enough to answer my questions in anticipation of taking part in the Shubbak Literature talk titled ‘A New Confidence’, where he will be joined by Alexandra Chreiteh, Amahl Khouri and Alberto Fernández Carbajal to discuss recent queer writings.

Nahla: What is it really like for the LGBT communities in the Middle East? Is there more freedom in some countries and not others or would you say it is oppressive in all of them?

Haddad: “What are we talking about when we talk about ‘freedom’? Freedom from what exactly? Freedom from community? From government? From society? And what do we lose when we free ourselves from society? That sort of freedom can be very lonely and these are the sorts of dilemmas the characters in Guapa are grappling with. And what about the concept of ‘oppression’? Oppression is multi-faceted and is not as simple as victim and perpetrator. I find it more useful to look at oppression as systems and structures that are dynamic and constantly changing.

“I also believe that the binary of ‘freedom’ and ‘oppression’ is not a useful way of looking at any situation, including that of LGBT communities in the Middle East. In any case, it’s impossible to speak on behalf of millions of LGBT individuals across the Arab world. I think it’s important to recognise the diversity of experiences and how elements like social class, geography and politics play into the experiences of LGBT communities. This is certainly something I tried to do in the book.”

Nahla: Rasa is self-loathing both when he is living in the Middle East and when he is in the West. Is this unique to his character or is it a common emotional experience for people of alternative sexualities in the Middle East due to the wide spread concept of shame and sin?

Haddad: “Rasa is a sensitive and self-aware character and in my experience sensitivity and self-awareness always bring a certain degree of self-loathing. But certainly he is battling shame, particularly around his sexuality, which he had to keep hidden from a very young age. I think gay shame is a universal phenomenon, not limited to the Arab world. I was certainly interested in exploring shame from a Middle Eastern communal context. But gay shame, sadly, remains a facet of the global LGBT community in various forms.”

Nahla: Tell me about Taymour’s character and the choice he makes to get married, deny his homosexuality and reject Rasa. Is he an archetype of something?

Haddad: “Taymour represents a certain type of fear that drives citizens to conform. It’s the same type of fear that propels Arab parents to make sure their sons study medicine or engineering and the fear that drives them to push their daughters into marrying into the ‘right’ kind of family.

“It’s the fear that drives citizens to support someone like Egypt’s President Sisi, Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad or any of the sectarian militias-cum-political-parties in Lebanon. Taymour is a representation of that sort of fear, the fear that compels people to social and political conformity. I wanted to sympathise with this conformity, I wanted to understand it, and understand why someone like Rasa might gravitate towards it.”

Nahla: The background city in Guapa experiences uprisings and a civil war situation. How were you involved in the movements circa 2011 in the Middle East?

Haddad: “I was in Beirut when the uprisings began in Tunisia and in London when the Egyptian uprising began—which is when coverage was the highest. Once the protests started in Yemen, a country I spent a lot of time working in, I tried to use my knowledge of the country to lobby British politicians and policymakers to support the uprisings. And as they progressed, I began to work with an NGO that worked with youth and women activists in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. But in many cases I found myself stuck in an odd position, as both an outsider and an insider. In many ways, it was a good position from which to write this sort of novel.”

Nahla: Do you see yourself as an LGBT activist? What are the challenges facing the LGBT rights movement in the MENA region?

Haddad: “I don’t see myself as an LGBT activist, though I recognise that having published the novel I am a voice for the community. Still, it is not a title I am comfortable with. In the end, I am a writer and if I am seen as a representative of anything, I will only disappoint. There are many brave LGBT activists and allies of the LGBT community who are working tirelessly through the region that are doing fantastic work, much more than anything I have ever done – they are too many to name.

“But I have heard from the LGBT community in the region that the novel has struck a chord with many of them, and so I’m proud for the novel to be part of a growing queer Arab culture.”

Nahla: In the novel, Rasa entertains the fantasy of escape with his lover to a Western country where he thinks their sexuality won’t be a problem. And, in your own life, you live in the UK with your partner. But what is it really like for the gay Arab person who is unable to make such an escape and is bombarded by religious and cultural forces that negate his homosexuality?

Haddad: “Is my sexuality not an issue in the UK? The only time I have been called a faggot and threatened with violence was in London, just fifteen metres from my house in Hackney. Though certainly, the situation for LGBT communities in the West is much better than in the Arab world. And from my own experience, growing up as a sensitive and slightly effeminate young boy in Kuwait and Jordan, I faced some relentless bullying and violence at the hands of other boys who sought to punish me for not fulfilling social ideals of masculinity.

“But I think we should try to avoid simplistic binaries that assume the West equals freedom and the Arab world equals violence and death. As for how to tackle homophobia in the Arab world, I would caution any sweeping statements about homophobia in the Arab world being driven purely by religion. I think homophobia in the Arab world is best understood by examining the unique cocktail of authoritarianism, ignorance, and misogyny – which affects all people in the region in different ways and to greater or lesser degrees. Thus, in tackling homophobia, I think we need to tackle all three of these elements.”

Nahla: I was very intrigued by the character of the mother who runs away from her son and husband without an explanation as to why. Can you tell me what inspired her personality and which archetype does she represent?

Haddad; “The mother character was probably the hardest character to write. I suppose because in many ways she represents a certain sensitivity and radical truth that I myself had to hide from society at a very young age. I learned the hard way that to be a man in the Arab world, one must not show sensitivity, and to be a citizen in the Arab world, one must shy away from the pursuit of truth at any cost. So in many ways, the fate of Rasa’s mother is reflective of how the characters – not just Teta, but Rasa and his father as well – chose to deal with their sensitivity and their fear of facing truth.”

Nahla: One last question. Who inspired the character of Maj?

Haddad: “Many friends inspired the character of Maj; but, fundamentally, I suppose Maj was inspired by the kind of person I aspire to be.”

——-

Note: This article was first published circa July 2017 in collaboration with the Shubbak Festival

For more information on the Shubbak Festival: http://www.shubbak.co.uk/

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